Gig review: Aly and Phil in our village

It must be a bit odd for musicians to come to a gig and find the dressing room/green room absolutely front of house and on open display as the punters arrive to take their seats. Nevertheless, this was no ordinary gig as Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, legends on the international traditional music scene for generations and with musical palmares the length of not just one arm but both outstretched, and uncrooked as a musician’s would usually be, arrive in Iochdar village hall, down at the end of my road, to play my birthday gig as part of their 2019 Scottish tour.*

They were here last year, too, although for one reason or another I missed it then (I do have a regular complaint that events on these islands tend not to be advertised well here unless you’re on that bookface thing). I had wondered why such stars – musical heroes of mine since the traditional scene exploded into my musical education in the 1980s – would play precisely here, and not least (still) without a new record to promote: partly for the reasons of time and effort involved in getting here and in making it pay (I guess it doesn’t – but that’s probably beside the point), but more importantly because we don’t have a strong fiddle tradition on the islands (though we do of course have a box one). (Today, down in Am Politician on Eirisgeidh for a birthday dinner, it appeared from talking to the publican that Phil had turned up last year, box in hand, for an inpromptu evening session: learning new tunes is, naturally, the lifeblood of any new musician.) There is, however, a sort of family connection with Uist and Benbecula for Phil, and both people who had maintained the connection were of course in the audience and got a shout out as well as a dedication from the stage. It was indeed that sort of gig.

Aly and Phil have been playing together for 33 years and with a background in music stretching back for fifteen years before that: Aly in Boys of the Lough and Phil in Silly Wizard. Both have the sort of status that entails writing tunes for commissions, both for paid jobs in TV productions and for other famous musicians, and having tunes written for them, but they still both enjoy each other’s company as well as have a key role in providing the active emotional support for each other that we all need.

With a musical heritage this long, picking a list of the sets of tunes you want to play is both tough and easy – tough because selecting any one track leaves a load of other similar-sounding combinations behind; easy because, with an appreciative not to say reverential crowd, you know that any selection you can make will go down well. So, the tunes have to fit and to deliver coherent sets which does the job of a tune-playing band but, not least, to the satisfaction of the musos themselves: stirring people in some way, playing on their heartstrings and chiming with their emotions. Here, we had the hits – Fairy Dance to close (from which the picture below is taken © Ella Wronecka – thank you!), with Hangman’s Reel (the theme tune from the BBC’s ‘Down Home‘ series, which properly introduced me to Aly Bain) and Jean’s Reel (likewise for Phil Cunningham, and fondly remembered by Andy Kershaw as the track he’d seen Cunningham absolutely shred after sinking about six pints; and the tune he’s apparently played at every one of his gigs ever).

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With Aly seriously ill in hospital earlier this year ahead of a triple heart bypass, and with a consequent warm-hearted expression of appreciation for our NHS, the first half – while mixed in with faster-paced sets – took on an elegiac tone, with ‘So Long, Liam’ an absolute stand-out. Other airs were similarly beautifully and breath-takingly sustained, drawing out the audience’s emotion right to the length of the bow, and for a brief second beyond. The second set, with the feature songs mentioned above, tended to be faster but still interleaved the more complex rhythms of the boys’ connection with Swedish musicians with airs and waltzes and, in some sets, bravely transitioning from waltzes to reels within the same set. Just the two of them on the stage but, with a bit of skullduggery, and no little skill, this was a whole band of fired-up musicians up there. All interspersed with lengthy introductions to the tunes which served to get the breath back, led largely by Phil, featuring humour (including a wonderful tale about playing for the Queen at Balmoral (here, for a wee flavour) which might well explain why the honours are still lost in the post, boys), shaggy dog stories, a fair amount of sly self-references, technical notes about the music and rhythms, and anecdotes drawn from their astonishing yet very human musical trajectories and careers, this was a right proper ceilidh.

Which brings me to the one slightly downwards note: the gig was wonderfully organised by Mary and the Ceòlas team, with the aid of the Talla an Iochdar committee volunteers, but it was disappointing to see the hall laid out for a fully sit-down gig. Now, traditional music isn’t only for the old’uns and it was great to see some junior enthusiasts too, and people who are, well, (still) older than me were the core of the audience so we need some chairs. But this music is made for dancing and some audience participation via a bit of an opportunity to get up offa that thing and show a few moves might well have improved the night even more by dint of giving a bit more feedback to the musicians. Foot-tapping and sincere, warm and grateful applause gets you so far but nothing tugs a musician’s sensibility more, or drives them further and faster, than people moving and grooving to the music they’re creating right there, right then.

There’s still some gigs left on the Scottish tour before it winds up in a homecoming gig at the Queen’s Hall in Scotland’s other (east coast) capital at the end of the month so, if they’re coming anywhere near you, go and see them. Not only have they absolutely still got it but they’ll send you out into the night aglow and warmed and inspired in the way that only traditional music, connecting souls and spirits and different understandings to the universal themes that bind us all, can properly do.

*  Might not have been strictly true.

Runrig: A Sasannach* appreciation

I missed out on Runrig in my earlier days, so they have indeed been something of a foreign territory. Coming first to national prominence in the late 70s, but on radio shows and TV that, living in England, I wouldn’t have seen, I was certainly aware of them from 1987, with the release of The Cutter and The Clan, their breakthrough, fifth, LP. By then, though, the only guitars I really wanted to hear were African, and specifically Congolese (out of Paris), while I really wanted to hear west African koras and, as for accordions – well, they were fine as long as they were in the vallenato style or otherwise played by Flaco Jimenez; and, if Andy Kershaw or, to a lesser extent, John Peel never played it, I never heard it. And I certainly missed their, surely unlikely, appearance in the 1990s on Top of the Pops, singing An Ubhal As Airde, their rather lovely song in memory of Calum and Rory’s father, and introduced by a young woman presenter who’d clearly been taken lessons from one of the band on how to say Gàidhlig properly (and very nearly making it, too).

What I didn’t do was make the connections between traditional music from elsewhere and that coming from ‘home’: the one should have led me back to the other.

So, for ages just about the only Runrig song I actually knew was An Toll Dubh, and that on a compilation CD which had been lent to me (thanks JB!). And, even then, I wasn’t quite sure how much was Runrig and how much was Paul Mounsey (the producer/re-arranger). Until this summer, that is, when my regular stint volunteering up at the museum in North Uist brought me into regular contact since, in advance of The Last Dance, and given that the museum holds the Runrig archive, part of the display was a Gold Disc (for Searchlight) and a series of well-chosen TV and other video clips from throughout the band’s history (including the aforementioned TOTP appearance) showing on a continual loop. Slowly, gently over the weeks, the songs got into my head, so I went out and bought 50 Great Songs, a 3-CD compilation (two in English and one in Gàidhlig) as well as a DVD. The CDs feature a number of studio and live recordings, mostly from the Bruce Guthro era, plus unusually, but typically generously, an allocation of space to a handful of other musicians singing Runrig songs (and including the stand-out track in this collection). One of these is Dick Gaughan, last heard by me in a session for Kershaw singing – among others – Amandla! a ahout-out for Umkhonto we Sizwe in the last days of apartheid which continues to be both chilling and inspiring.

You don’t have to live on Uist to appreciate Runrig’s worth: apart from elsewhere on these islands, and on the mainland, the band is also highly successful in Germany and in Scandinavia and, famously but tragically, in North America, too. But it does help, I think – and I don’t mean the obvious appeal of references to the Uists and in lyrics such as that in The Message:

Gonna take the last flight home to Balivanich/In the month of June/Go racing up the South Ford…’

[in a car, obviously: no-one goes racing up South Ford on a bike].

What Runrig does very well is to capture the spirit of Uist in a way that not only pulls on the heartstrings of emigrés but also pays tribute to the courage of those who took the decision to stay – the product of a lack of opportunity in some cases, sure, but in many others one of a conscious desire to build on traditions, to pay tribute to the efforts of those who went before and to sustain communities – choices which, once made, frequently carry a heavy toll on those who make them. Runrig does this both in the lyrics (although the lyrics tend more towards moments in and out of consciousness, lines of inspired poetry, and emotional references and pulls, in songs that may not necessarily otherwise tell a linear story) but perhaps more particularly, as I’ve hinted already, in the music – but, in truth, the magic lies in the combination of both. Other than in echoing the luadh (waulking), as famously in An Toll Dubh but also in other songs in the collection, the melody lines are strong and with solid hooks, and the band well know the little tricks of making keyboards and guitars sound like falling rain, bass lines that pulse like gusts of mighty gales, rolling drums that echo the pounding ocean, and the whole coming together in a sound that forms a subliminal, aural recognition of the wild-at-heart soundscape underneath the big, wide-open skies of the Uists.

Of course, the short answer is that, wherever they’re actually from, like all live bands who’ve spent a lifetime gigging and spending a life on the road, the secret to Runrig is that the band are really good at giving a live audience what they want: passion, intensity, rousing choruses and the chance to jump up and down a bit. In that, they’re not so different to any other band, including that E Street one (with which there are some melodic similarities here): it’s all rock’n’roll, whether its inspiration is rooted in Celtic mysticism, American blues and gospel or British beat.

For an introduction into the sound of Runrig (at least, in its post-1997 second coming), this isn’t a bad place to start. That and Flowers of the West, which tells the story behind some of the songs and including some marvellous anecdotes and tall stories, including one of the TOTP appearances and a certain Diana Ross (sadly out of print, it seems, but perhaps available at a library, or indeed museum, near you).

That stand-out song? The version of Chi Mi ‘n Geamhradh (deliberately loose translation: Winter is Coming) by Catherine-Ann McPhee, a woman from Barra now living in Canada (a path familiar to many emigrés from the Western Isles) – and a reversal of the one undertaken by Guthro. Accompanied by the clarsach, and then by the violin, this is a vocal of extraordinary, spine-tingling power – confident, assertive and self-determining – set in the most lovely of arrangements. It is a thing of rare and lovely beauty: do check it out.

* Check the earlier discussion here.

The Free Church roots of American gospel

‘Never read the comments’ is long-standing advice for people on the net (aside of this very blog, of course, where there is a very interesting discussion going on right now about Celtic linguistic references to ‘the English’). But, sometimes it does pay off – and one of the recent obituaries to the sadly-departed Aretha Franklin in The Guardian provides one such example where one fairly prolific commentator on the site – a ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ – argued in the comments that:

‘Franklin was the supreme representative of a tradition that brought together European (Scottish) call and response church worship with African tribal chant. As such, she was the legitimate voice of a United States that was founded on both of those diverse cultures.’

Well, that was news to this reader, for whom Aretha’s voice and stance represented probably the apotheosis of the spine-chilling call both to the church as well as to civil and women’s rights. Challenged to come up with some evidence for this, ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ produced two sources: a YouTube video introduced by Phil Cunningham, the well-known accordeon player, and Calum Martin (who also features in this slightly longer, separate video); and a piece in The Independent which identified that there is academic support for such a view from one Professor Ruff, a musician and professor at Yale University. Given the history also of the involvement in the slave trade of representatives of the Scottish wealth and land-owning classes, which is well documented and which also features in Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, for example, there may well be substantive merit in what Ruff says. We should ignore the more hyperbolic and less well-researched aspects of his reported comments, while observing the notion that maverick academics are not an entirely unknown quantity. I’m not at all well placed to comment on aspects of the black experience, and I can only imagine the reaction among the black community to the view that gospel singing stems, in part, from the singing and oral traditions of a section of their oppressors. (Interestingly, The Independent piece has no comments.) However, the video is well worth a look for those who haven’t yet come across the tradition of Gàidhlig psalm singing: it’s both emotional and quite beautiful; and also contributes to an understanding of some of the traditions of some contemporary singers and musicians from the Western Isles.

There are some clear similarities in the styles, at least at the superficial level, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly convinced that there is that much in the way of actual influence from one to the other. Clearly, even traditions which do share some commonalities in their roots are likely to diverge over the centuries and over the thousands of miles which separate modern day experiences from the ones which came to form them. With this in mind, we should perhaps not be troubled too much by the gap created by the incongruity between a white (and apparently largely older male) congregation, sitting down and singing from hymn books, and a black, mixed and substantially much more mobile and youthful one.

There is, however, at least one aspect of commonality which is worth considering. We know that working class highland communities have suffered much as a result of the Clearances (and then the potato famines) with large, but unknown numbers probably counting in the several tens of thousands of able-bodied men and women evicted from the Highlands, their homes and belongings burned in an act of ‘wreckless terrorism’, and forced into exile in Canada, in the Carolinas of the US and in Australia, with devastating impacts on those cleared as well as on the old and the very young who were left behind to fend for themselves. I should be clear that I’m not equating the destinies of those subject to the Clearances with those sold (also from substantially agrarian societies, by the way) into the slave trade, the conditions of the migration and the method of transportation being cruel, inhuman and deathly on the one hand but brutal, dehumanising and murderous on the other. Nevertheless, the pain and suffering caused by rupture, both on those forced to leave and also on those left behind, is perhaps one thing which might well be held in common between Free Chuch congregations and those of the US gospel south and which might well contribute some of any similiarities between the styles of singing.

Peter Alan Ross, in his beautiful elegy on the occasion of Runrig’s Last Dance, a band for whose songwriters, coming as they do from North Uist, Gàidhlig psalm singing was also a part of their traditions and upbringing, notes that Bruce Guthro, when he joined the band, was a Novia Scotian. His approach to singing reflected the themes of emigration and loss about which the MacDonalds were writing and that his joining the band, at least to some degree, represented a taking back of one of our own. If there are similarities between gospel traditions and the approach of Gàidhlig psalm singers, it must surely be in the pain and sorrow of communities ruptured by external forces and from economic systems that saw people either as a source of profit or otherwise as a barrier to it.

Books-to-read shelf

Looking just about as packed as it ever has (am a pretty slow reader and don’t tend to read more than one book at once), although it’s pleasingly representative of the stuff I usually read. Readers’ recommendations as to what I should pick off the shelf next are welcome!

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Actually, at least one of these is well underway – I’m halfway through Ted Gioia’s ‘The History of Jazz‘ (2nd Ed), which was my bedside read of choice while in Perth, which accounts for why progress on this has been slower than usual. Selling the flat means that it has now managed to find its way here to the islands, and I have recently picked it up again. I’ve reached the part immediately after the rise of bop to replace big band swing, with the new modern jazz movement at the start of the 1950s looking to build on bop while building something new coincidental with the resource-instituted break-up of the big bands.

As I found before, this is a remarkably easy book to put down and pick up again, with just a casual reminder of the prevailing subject matter. Each chapter takes a look at a particular movement within jazz, looking successively at the key bands, line-ups and essential listening by each (the Third Edition should definitely include some CDs…). It’s exhaustively researched and includes plenty of colour but the writing is balanced and not judgmental in spite the strong association between jazz and substance abuse and, despite being an enthusiast, Gioia’s metre is never off-putting to the casual reader.

What continues to strike me is that, in the UK, we’re just celebrating 40 years of punk – well, 1976 was the real 40th anniversary, but this year saw the release of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, the hook on which Marc Riley and Rob Hughes have built their hugely entertaining A to Z of Punk series, now available as a podcast. Casting back 40 years from punk and the biggest draw in popular music in 1936/37 was Benny Goodman. I’ll not hear a word against Benny Goodman – anyone building a career in popular music based on playing the clarinet and who wears glasses is alright with me, for one thing; and, for another, his band was racially integrated in an era marked by segregation: his quartet featured Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton alongside Goodman and Krupa; and his big band featured many charts, and most of the popular ones, arranged by Fletcher Henderson. Benny Goodman was not playing music for middle class cardigan wearers in their 50s; at the height of his fame, and still in his late twenties himself, he was playing for thrill-seeking teenagers.

Sonically speaking, Goodman’s is a world away from punk from which, 40 years on in turn, The Damned’s ‘New Rose‘ still sounds both fresh and vital to me (a tribute to the production of Nick Lowe, which knocked the band out at the time). Rat Scabies, fag in mouth, clattering out that rhythm on his drumkit; Brian James’s buzzsaw guitar; the whole coming together with an explosive energy – still blows me away in a heartbeat of recognition. I’m perhaps not as well placed to others to judge the worth of ‘New Rose’ (among others) in a contemporary setting (age being somewhat against me) but, sonically, I can’t hear that same great leap forwards now as there was between Goodman and the Damned. And that’s because it clearly isn’t there.

The rupture that the arrival of rock’n’roll represented is key, of course (though – arguments aside as to the real originators of rock’n’roll – there was a stylistic link between the swing era and Bill Haley and the Comets, coming eighteen years after Goodman, and thus more or less the mid-point between swing and punk). Equally important is the electrification of the guitar and its amplification; but Gioia continually points to changes in popular taste and in changing economic circumstances defining what musicians do and that’s also true. Gioia is referring more to the shifts within various parts of the jazz scene – but it’s true today too in terms of fragmentation within modern popular music into genres (where once jazz gave birth to trad, swing, bop and modern; electronic dance music gave birth to drum and bass, jungle, dubstep and grime). Equally, the ending of prohibition gave rise to the energy and the opportunity for big bands like Goodman’s to function, however briefly; today, it’s reality TV and the ubiquity of Simon Cowell which gives rise to the narrowly stylised vocal warblings and pyrotechnics on which modern wannabes build their own stardoms.

Apart from the mistaken call on many bands of the punk era to reunite – on which issue John Lydon has (still) the most appropriate comment – the longevity of many music careers today would have surprised Goodman and the Sex Pistols alike (Goodman had one triumphant tour and a major concert at Carnegie Hall (while clearly continuing for a longer while albeit much less influentially); the Pistols had a number of gigs and one album). It surprises me, too – bands were never supposed to last more than a couple of years or albums, by which time we had all moved on to something new and they should have retired; and the notion of one man (Springsteen, to pick another from my to-read shelf) in his late 60s still appealing to many people in their 20s – take a look at attendance at his gigs, and I don’t just mean Glastonbury (or the 48 year-old Dave Grohl, to pick a more contemporary example) – would have shocked (and clearly disappointed) the 14 year-old me.

To return to Gioia’s assertion of music directions being the product of changes in circumstances and in taste, the substantial lack of a new sonic direction for music in first the twenty years, and then the forty years, after 1977 – while accepting that exponential leaps in music can’t continue to keep happening – seems to indicate that punk in its energies and music form was doing something right. Bands shouldn’t last for ever and there should be a deal of turnover, but a shared, collective vision on what popular music should be about, based on a DIY mentality and an energetic assertion of the emotional power of popular music, certainly ought.

As dusk falls

I’ve recently been in Mazury, Poland’s lake district, where I’ve been helping my partner pack up her house following its sale (this is the sixth house move I’ve been involved with in little more than six years, a process of now rapidly-diminishing returns!).

The weather was mostly damp and cool, although autumn is well underway and the colours of the trees, even against a grey sky with little sunshine to lighten, are beautiful. My subject here is a small lake at Wilkasy, near Gizycko (which Germans know as Lötzen: Wilkasy has a few signs advertising rooms, with Zimmer Frei alongside the Polish Pokoje), unusually not connected by waterways to other lakes and thus with few tourist yachts and, with a shoreline dominated by swamp and mud, it is not so popular with wild swimmers either. Those in the know tell me that it is, therefore, great for fishing and there are a few small boats moored at the side of the lake. As winter sets in, and ice covers the lake sufficient to walk on, they will be frozen in, marking time until the spring thaw.

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Here, looking north, the desolation of the derelict, sunken, wooden landing stage, set against the background of the messy, untidy curve of the reed beds, the soft tone greys providing an absence rather than the presence of colour, other than the yellow hint of a set sun reflected in the water, delivers a lonely scene of a contrastingly calm stillness. To complete the picture, a rook in the forest on the far shore utters a few of its deep, evisceral KARK! calls, half-warning, half-assertive of self, as it settled into its night’s roost.

As for the soundtrack, a soft piano would seem to suit – perhaps, given the picture, the sonorous calls of Satie’s Les Trois Gymnopédies, or, to lighten the mood a little, some soft jazz. All I can think of, however, is Phil Collins and In The Air Tonight – not because it fits the particular mood I have been painting, or because I particularly like the song, but because RadioZET, our listening station of choice when in Poland, has, amongst a mix of popular Polish artists and today’s auto-tuned stars, a continuing and deeply obsessive fixation with 1980s power ballads. Think Tina Turner denying that we need another hero while Bonnie Tyler is continuing to hold out for one; think Foreigner wanting to know what love is, as well as Journey admonishing us not to stop believing (though that one also has a more recent connotation of which I’d perhaps rather not be reminded now!), alongside all the other US bands badged under what we used to know as AOR (adult-oriented rock); think the soundtracks to Footloose and Dirty Dancing. And, on this visit, think Phil Collins feeling ‘it’ coming in the air tonight. No fewer than four times in less than one week, that I am aware of, and when the radio tends only to be on for less than an hour at a time, is a little bit much to take. The 1980s, punk energies abandoned and the old guard, initially hiding behind the settee as a riot of anarchic popular vandalism took over at least the music press, starting to be confident enough to reassert itself, was (and with a few honourable exceptions) really the decade that popular music forgot. And don’t get me started on Rod Stewart, after all these years, asking us (afresh) if we think he’s sexy. But, after all, perhaps RadioZET is just en vogue. Nightmare thought.

Back to packing up stuff, I think. In a different room where my music folder might, if I’m lucky, provide me with a few new, more acceptable earworms.

CD review: Love and Hate

I’m coming a little late to this one, Michael Kiwanuka’s second CD, released in July 2016, being a present (thanks, Tracy!) to which I’ve only now got around. Nevertheless, this was quite a timely listen since Kiwanuka has been sitting in on a Sunday afternoon during February on 6Music for Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (some episodes still available for listening).

A look at the playlists for the shows reveals a lot about the influences on Kiwanuka at this point, alongside the playlists he has also put together on iTunes (apparently…) in support of his 2017 Brits award nominations (for male artist and for album of the year); and on his own Spotify account (subscription required). (Though listening on the radio is always better, right?) Alongside the well-known influential figures from soul and jazz (sadly, most of them dead), there are some surprises too, revealing Kiwanuka, evidently a shy and even introspective man (there’s little of himself on his website or on his Twitter feed – and fair enough for all that, although artists are by definition public figures and, perhaps, need to give a little of themselves if their work is to be understood), to be something of a rocker, too (something which becomes also clear on the CD, which heavily features blues guitars and the influence of Ernie Isley (‘Summer Breeze’)).

On to the CD, and the most immediately obvious reference points vocally are Richie Havens and Ted Hawkins, but, primarily, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ in both the themes of the songs (spiritualism, racism and agonised pain at the state of the world) but also in the over-riding ethos of orchestral soul drawn from the shimmering, soaring strings that underpin the key moments in the majority of the songs, in the chorus of voices providing backing for them and in the sudden key, and mood, shifts in the melodies within them. Extraordinarily tough footsteps to follow, perhaps (although, alongside the utterly sheer brilliance of some of its songs, it has to be said that ‘What’s Going On?’ also contains moments of unlistenable psychedelic filler: it’s an album of great songs, but it’s not a great album). Nevertheless, Kiwanuka manages successfully to tread on similar ground while not plummeting as many of the depths – a fact betraying, despite his apparent introspective nature, a level of confidence about his abilities and in the strength of his songs.

After a period of time-out to re-appraise himself and his music, this makes a bold statement. The otherwise somewhat overblown review of ‘Love and Hate’ in The Guardian points to the inner belief involved in putting a ten minute track (‘Cold Little Heart’) as the first song on the album, with Kiwanuka’s own vocal (though of course his voice is heard also in his guitar…) heard for the first time only after nearly five minutes. This is perceptive in some respects, although it’s also possible to see this as an attempt to put off the moment of saying something as long as possible. The moment he does is not only joyous but joyously cathartic: against the stirring strings, the repeated intonations of his backing singers and in his bluesy guitar in that first five minutes, it’s also clearly possible to see this as a man re-awakening, revitalising, drawing strength from the voices that surround him, overcoming his doubts and, finally sucking in air, gathering himself to say what it is he has to say.

Which brings us to his vocal (and his lyrics): cracked and pained, doubtful and unforgiving of himself, and cuttingly honest, but nevertheless capable of positive and even upbeat moments, Kiwanuka’s is finely tuned to his own, deeply personal observations and experiences. If the predominant feel of ‘Love and Hate’ is downbeat, geared towards a Sunday afternoon and a soul searching for answers even in the first, let alone from the second, half of 2016, Kiwanuka is clear that, while we need to look for sources of strength within ourselves, we can’t do this by ourselves: that we have to walk with each other, not just in someone else’s shoes but alongside them.

Key songs: the title track; and ‘Cold Little Heart’ – that gorgeous, raw opener. In fact, if you don’t like that, simply move along – there’s nothing else to see here. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a thing of great beauty and emotional power. And this is a great album.

Bill Drummond, memory and 13th birthday top tens

I was touched last week by artist (and former musician) Bill Drummond’s memory tape for Lauren Laverne’s 6Music show (here for the original; and here for The Spill’s post on it), both in terms of what he said about the decline in the role and significance of recorded music as a result, partly, of over-commercialisation; and about his own experience of fading memory. This led him to construct a playlist of ten songs drawn from the top 20 in the week he turned 13 (i.e. at the point of becoming the teenager for whom recorded music had most impact and indeed, at whom it was largely aimed).

As a veteran pop-picker myself, and lifelong constructor of mix tapes, CDs and playlists, I was intrigued and of course proceeded immediately to dig up the top ten for my 13th birthday, via the Official Chart‘s website. Sad to report that, in the fourth week of September 1976, there really was not a lot going on in the charts. Abba was (still) no. 1, with Dancing Queen; and, frankly, I’m struggling to get very much at all out of the top 20: there’s one, possibly two, songs in the top ten that I wouldn’t mind hearing again; barely even that from 11-20. Outside the top 20, there’s a few songs which raise a fair bit of interest now (Lou Rawls, James Brown), even if unlikely then to have provided much in the way of teenage kicks, but it’s only really when we get down to No. 43, up from No. 46 this week, would my 13-year-old self have sat up: Eddie and the Hot Rods’ ‘Live at the Marquee’ EP (a record, in its picture sleeve, that I still have: they were one of my favourite bands). Otherwise, this was a chart which was the antithesis of the energy and the drive of Eddie and the Hot Rods: dominated by dross, comedy records and novelty acts, unchallenging disco hits and, simply, a welter of soporific, bland tunes; unobjectionable fare put out as the UK recovered from that summer’s sweltering heatwave and drought – the charts were ripe for the musical revolution that they were about to get. Or did they?

There was, of course, an awful lot happening on the music scene at that precise point – just that it wasn’t yet troubling those in charge of the sales tallies: The Damned’s New Rose wouldn’t be released for another month although, in the very week I turned 13, the 100 Club held its ‘Punk Special‘. I knew all about punk at that point, from the pages of the Melody Maker that my Mum presciently ensured was delivered to the house every week (until such times as the language got a bit too coarse to take), though I was a couple of years too young (and probably far too provincial) to be at the 100 Club that night. (BTW, my mum managed to undermine my fervour for the punk rebellion in one swoop, declaring of ‘New Rose’ when I proudly took it home from Quicksilver Records in Reading that she loved it. But then, why wouldn’t she: it’s a cracking song, as Tim Sommer highlights in the link above, with a spirit and a vitality that still resonates forty years on owing not least to Nick Lowe’s knock-out production job.)

Though, interestingly, things weren’t a lot better, chart-wise, precisely one, two, and three years later, either. Punk did change a lot of things for the better at least for some people, and perhaps only for a short while, but it’s a mistake to think that punk was as revolutionary as all that, since an awful lot of the same old dross simply survived it. I would actually struggle to pick more than a couple of songs that I’d want to hear from any of these subsequent top tens even while punk was in its pomp – a testimony, no doubt, to the sorts of people who run the record industry. And, indeed, the reinstatement of the old guard once punk and what had by then become badged as ‘new wave’ had burned itself out on the fripperies of the new romantics was largely what sent me running in an entirely different direction musically by the mid-1980s (inspired largely firstly by King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System, which I would have seen on The Tube; and then by the African stars on Tam Tam pour l’Ethiopie, part of Two-Tone’s restitution of the black voice to musicians doing things to raise money for starving children in Africa, after which point I was gone).

So, no 13th birthday chart playlist for me: sorry, Bill. This was the week (and, perhaps, the mini-period) that lets down the idea that we can have a decent musical conversation based on our memories of the music that accompanied us precisely as we started our most exciting, and troubling, years.

And yet Drummond’s essential belief in the power and the art of the three minute record to have a hold on us and to trigger cultural and individual change (and, years later, to spark our memories) is too good to let go just like that. Here, instead of a ten-song playlist from the top 20 of late September 1976, is one song from each of the top tens that accompanied me from 13 to 23: right through my teenage years and taking me right up to the start of my finals year at uni:

1. 1976: Rod Stewart – The Killing of Georgie

2. 1977: The Rods (ha!) – Do Anything You Wanna Do

3. 1978: Siouxsie and the Banshees – Hong Kong Garden

4. 1979: The Crusaders – Street Life

5. 1980: Stevie Wonder – Masterblaster (Jammin’)

6. 1981: Soft Cell – Tainted Love

7. 1982: The Message – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

8. 1983: UB40 – Red Red Wine

9. 1984: Sister Sledge – Lost In Music

10. 1985: Midge Ure – If I Was

They’re not a collection of the greatest songs (I actually only own five six of them, and I had to remind myself of what ‘If I Was’ sounded like – something that is likely to be increasingly the case in the years that follow. Indeed, having checked, the first year in which I can recall, off the top of my head and from the list on the screen in front of me, less than half the top ten on my birthday is as depressingly early as 1987, although I continue to be able to recognise at least one top ten song, in that version by that artist, at least until 2002 (my point of No Chart Consciousness: now there’s an idea for a post…)).

Further, there’s not a lot of rebel message in that list, and in some (other) respects I’m clearly a prisoner of the format I’ve selected. However, I think they do form a reasonably cohesive, and interesting, selection which is enough at least to get people talking about the power of music in the way that Drummond intends. And, maybe, helping in some way to keep alive recorded music’s role as creative and inspiring force.

 

Gig review: Iain MacFarlane

Iain MacFarlane, the fiddler from Glenfinnan, pitched up in the Uists on Tuesday this week with his band touring ‘Gallop to Callop’, his new CD – his first as a solo artist – despite being involved with Blazin’ Fiddles for over fifteen years since he set up the band.

Playing a well-balanced combination of sets of strathspeys, jigs and reels, and airs, interspersed with tales laced with humour and with more than a whiff of shaggy dog, as well as insights into how a traditional musician goes about his craft of collecting tunes and writing (and naming) new ones, MacFarlane and his band kept a capacity crowd royally entertained. The core band – MacFarlane; Ingrid Henderson on keyboards and clarsach; fiddle player (and stepper) Megan Henderson; guitarist Ewan Robertson; and Dermot Byrne on melodeon – played two sets of about 50 minutes each, plus an encore, and supplemented their number with stand-in guests including soundman Iain Macdonald, Artistic Director at Ceolas Uibhist, on whistle, who had been instrumental in bringing the band to the Uists; and Allan Henderson, MacFarlane’s old mucker from Blazin’ Fiddles. This helped bring about an atmosphere of a proper pub session to the gig – no mean feat when the venue is the (otherwise very well-appointed) drama hall of Lionacleit School – and brought a real warmth to a chilly November night. Indeed, despite the obvious lack of a bar, in the context of a style of music which more or less demands a degree of looseness to be enjoyed at its best, the music held up well, assisted chiefly by MacFarlane’s own swinging virtuosity, at its best on the faster tunes, and Robertson’s effortlessly fluent underpinning rhythm.

Good local support for the gig, and the growing musical scene in the Uists, all help to prompt the need for a proper musical venue, in which the required ambience for traditional music to thrive, and in a larger setting, can be found more readily. In this direction, it is to be hoped that Ceolas is successful in its ambitious Cnoc Soilleir project.

Meanwhile, ‘Gallop to Callop’ is available direct from Old Laundry Productions. Go on – inspire your Friday night with the degree of energy and musical chutzpah it demands!

A Wigan Taster

No, not this one: though a third win in a row and up to fourth in the Championship is welcome enough for the mighty Royals.

Craig Charles on his 6Music Funk and Soul Show tonight called for Northern Soul Top 10s. Never one to be able to resist such a challenge, here’s mine (a southern boy living a somewhat vicarious northern soul life aided, among others, by Roger Scott’s all-too-brief half-hour show at 6pm on Friday evenings on Capital Radio in about 80/81: running home from my school-based community service, running up the stairs calling out greetings and discarding coat, etc. as I went just so I could make it in time to the record/play buttons on my radio-cassette…)

1. Chuck Wood – Seven Days Too Long

This was the starting point for Mr. Charles’s request (though he had several other northern classics during the show) – and it’ll absolutely do as a starter for me, too: an absolute belter of a tune with a honking sax and an impassioned vocal (and a good reference to Northern Soul nights being one week apart).

2. The Contours – Just A Little Misunderstanding

Like Chuck Wood, this was a staple tune on Roger Scott’s shows and it’s another floor-shaker as Billy Gordon, singer with The Contours, seeks – and with a great deal of honesty about his own personal failings – to pull a failing relationship out of the fire.

3. The 7th Avenue Aviators – You Should ‘O’ Held On

Classic sound, beat and horns, falsetto vocal and a theme of lost love and knowing what you want: no self-respecting top-whatever is complete without this stomper. In typical northern soul style, providing endless fun for DJs and enthusiasts, the actual musicians responsible appear to change with the label but this is an unforgettable dance tune.

4. Rita and the Tiaras – Gone With the Wind is my Love

I have to confess: not a tune I knew until Levanna McLean‘s Move On Up compilations (this one’s on Vol. 1) came on the scene. But: what a song: a driving beat, stirring strings creating an atmosphere of intensity against which Ms Rita’s lovely, sweet, frustrated vocal mourns the absence of her love despite her having given it her everything.

5. Garnett Mimms & The Enchanters – As Long As I Have You

One of the great lost soul vocalists, Garnett Mimms’s sweet vocal is the stand-out part of this song, along with the garage guitar. But, like a lot of northern soul, it’s also a great production job: the tune just bounces along, sweeping all before it. Unlike a lot of other northern classics, the joy comes from having love, not the bittersweet loss of it (or threat of loss).

6. The Third Degree – Mercy

The single most played tune in my current collection and quite simply the definitive version of Duffy’s 60s throwback song. An absolute belter, in which horns and drums build to an epic stomping finale, this always leaves me breathlessly wrecked! It’s a great video, too 🙂

7. Smoove and Turrell – Let Yourself Go

Another contemporary tune (the 60s and 70s didn’t have all the good tunes), the muscular drive of this modern classic pays tribute to the working class roots of the northern scene, with a gorgeously soulful vocal from a notable beard-wearer. Originally from Eccentric Audio, the Geordie lads’ second album.

8. The Steinways – You’ve Been Leadin’ Me On

Back to the classics, and another one I recall from Roger Scott’s shows, this is typically northern in its intensity and in its themes, with a driving beat and an out-loud vocal from Ms. Steinway (like a lot of northern bands, not a lot is known about this group) with whose power the rest of the Steinways, joyously playing the role of the feckless lover, strive manfully to keep up). Recorded in 1966, worth noting for its recording of the woman telling her lover precisely where to get off.

9. The Precisions – If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely)

Another punch of intensity analysing the wreckage of another failed love affair, this one’s also notable for featuring a vocal nod to The Meters’s influential ‘Cissy Strut‘ (The Valentinos also do something very similar on ‘Sweeter Than The Day Before‘: yep – I’ve squeezed in a bonus eleventh track there).

10. Timi Yuro – It’ll Never Be Over For Me

An inevitable change of pace for my closer, but this still packs a drive and is a real tear-jerker (just listen to the emotional pull of the poetry in that bridge, and how brilliantly executed it is, too) from Ms Yuro, knowing the conversation that’s coming and making a conscious choice to let her lover go but still sufficiently in control to be able to make a steadfast promise.

Slightly over half an hour (a fraction too long for a Trunk of Funk!) of intense, danceable, joyous, celebratory mayhem. Northern Soul at its best!